‘Centurion’ [2010] movie review

Caution: contains spoilers.

At long last, a movie about the Roman Empire that has something of a feel of reality about it. The history on which ‘Centurion” is purportedly based is a dreadful muddle, but that is true of most movies about the Vietnam War or World War 2, so why should this be any different? It is a great adventure story, not an historical documentary, and like all good adventure stories it is simple to the point of timelessness.

The year is 117 AD. The place is the gloomy, dank and heavily forested north of Britannia, the remotest part of Rome’s most remote province. We see a wounded man running across bleak hills in a snow storm. A voice-over tells us that he is ‘Quintus Dias, a soldier of Rome, and this is neither the beginning nor the end of my story.’

Flashback two weeks. Pictish marauders attack the Fort at Inchtuthil on the northern coast of the Firth of Tay. One Roman, a Centurion by the name of Quintus Dias [Michael Fassbender] is selected for capture apparently because he speaks in Pictish [translation conveniently provided in subtitle: ‘Go to hell!’] to his attacker. He manages to escape and bring the news of the attack to Governor Julius Agricola [Paul Freeman], who orders the Ninth Legion under its commander, General Titus Flavius Virilus [sic] [Dominic West] to march north from its base at Eboracum [York] to crush the obstreperous Picts who dare to assail the might of Rome. Quintus is assigned to Virilis’ staff, where he meets Etain [Olga Kurylenko], a mute Brigantian woman who is extraordinarily skilled at tracking. Etain has agreed to act as their guide.

In a forest of tall trees, the legion is attacked while on extended line of march. Despite fierce resistance, the column is massacred. Only Dias and six others survive. Picking themselves out of the carnage they learn from one of their number who saw him taken that Virilis has been captured and is being held at the compound of Gorlacon [Ulrich Thomsen], the Pictish chieftain. Acting under the command of Dias, they resolve to rescue their respected Commander and try and make their way back to Roman territory. Their attempt fails, and they are forced to leave Virilus behind, but not before he orders Dias to take care of his men and see them safely back to camp.

Discovered by the Picts, they are forced to flee, but not before they have learned that Etain betrayed them, deliberately leading the column into an ambush. To complicate matters further, the young son of Gorlacon [Ryan Atkinson] is killed in the rescue attempt, leading the chieftain to vow vengeance on Dias and his men. He commands Etain to lead the hunt for them, and to bring him back their heads to be displayed on poles in his compound.

The little band of Romans, injured and starving, struggles southwards across the rugged, snow-clad hills, through dense forests, across roaring, icy rivers. Etain and her warriors cling doggedly to their trail. Try as they might, the Romans cannot throw of their pursuers, thanks to the almost supernatural tracking skills of Etain. One by one they fall. They become separated, two going one way, pursued by wolves, the rest going another, pursued by Etain and those running from the wolves consider themselves the luckier ones.

Dias and his remaining comrades seek shelter in the hut of Arianne [Imogen Poots], a Pictish woman who is condemned to live alone, outcast, because some of her people consider her to be a witch. She takes them in, and an immediate chemistry begins to work between her and Dias. Etain and her men arrive, but Arianne conceals the fugitives who now know that there is a Roman fort just two days’ journey to the South. Bidding farewell to Arianne, the head off only to find the fort is deserted, a notice pinned to a wall telling anyone who can read that the garrison has been withdrawn south of the Vallum, the defensive line that is being fortified as Hadrian’s Wall. While they are deliberating on what next to do, they hear the sound of horse’ hooves; Etain and her men have run them down at last.

After a brief but fierce battle, in which Dias kills Etain, all the Picts are dead and only two Romans are left standing. Mounted now they head south for the Vallum and on the way they meet the one survivor of their two mates who fled from the wolves. When just in sight of the Vallum, which is being built, Dias is attacked by the man who survived the wolves because Dias knows that the man left his mate to die so that he would survive. As they fight, a sentry on the wall looses an arrow, killing the other companion in the mistaken belief that he is a Pict. Having killed his man, Dias returns to Carlisle and Governor Agricola, the sole survivor of the Ninth Legion.

Agricola greets Dias as a hero, but as soon as his back is turned orders him to be killed. Dias kills the two soldiers sent to murder him, although he is badly wounded in the process, grabs a horse and heads back north to the hut of Arianne. Falling from his horse into Arianne’s arms he tells her that now they are both outcasts and this is where he belongs. Voice-over again; ‘I am Quintus Dias, and this is neither the beginning nor the end of my story.”

I could enumerate many, many points of historical error. This is 117 AD, remember, but Julius Agricola is still Governor although in fact he had been recalled to Rome more than 30 years before. I have never heard of a Titus Flavius Virilus. There is record of one Titus Flavius Virilis who served as a Centurion in the Ninth Legion and eventually died in North Africa some time in the second half of the second century after 45 years of military service. In 117 Trajan was still Emperor [he died in the August], and his successor Hadrian did not arrive in Britannia until about six years later; only then did work on the Wall commence.

There was an uprising in Britannia at that time, but amongst the Brigantes of what is now Yorkshire. The nearest uprising in the south of Caledonia [where our action takes place] was in 125 AD. Inchtuthil fortress was built in 84 AD for a push towards the north that never came; it was abandoned almost immediately. As to the abandoned fort where our heroes finally slew their pursuers, such things did not exist. The Roman army never, never, never left a fort standing. If it was to be abandoned, it was destroyed, all timbers burnt, everything not transportable thrown into the ditch, and the ditch itself filled in. The Legions would never leave a strong point available for use by an enemy. The Pictish language? No-body now knows what that might have been. The Picts left no records that we can read, and no-body ever transcribed their tongue into Latin or any other language. It is a linguistic mystery.

There are more points, but what of them? As I pointed out, this is an adventure story, not a documentary.

My immediate impression on watching ‘Centurion’ was that it felt right. Armour, weapons, vehicle, equipment, Pictish huts and so forth all looked very authentic. The scriptwriter will not get any literary awards for his dialogue, but the soldiers’ speech felt very real. It was terse, jerky, idiomatic, profane. But Roman soldiers were not orators or even well educated. Their speech would have sounded like that. The Picts were not the noble savages that they are usually portrayed as, but as merciless and vengeful warriors with excellent metal-working skills – which they undoubtedly were.

‘Centurion’ is a ripping adventure with has a high order of realism that is very rare in a movie set in such a remote time. The story line is clearly set out early in the piece and progresses quickly and without side-issues. The tension continues to very last. Definitely four stars’ worth.


  • ip camera  On 13/01/2011 at 21:08

    Thanks for the informative article, it was a good read and I hope its ok that I share this with some facebook friends. Thanks.

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